The Online War Between ISIS and the U.S. State Department
There are an estimated 2000 westerners who have gone to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq and an additional 13,000 non-western foreign fighters who have done the same. ISIS has showcased some of them, such as the British jihadist known as “Jihadi John,” through appearances in the gruesome beheading videos posted on Youtube. (See- Who is Jihadi John?- In 60 Seconds– U.K. Telegraph) Yet this number of 15,000 foreign fighters, as significant as it is, does not give the full picture of their level of popular support, either in the west or in other regions of the world.
The 15,000 figure represents only those who have successfully overcome the various hurdles necessary for their supporters to make it to Iraq or Syria, which are substantial (e.g. the threat of arrest in their home countries, coordinating with those who would receive them in Syria or Iraq, financing their trips, etc…). There are certainly many others who can’t overcome these hurdles, but otherwise seem very sympathetic to ISIS. Indeed, those thousands of foreign fighters who have joined ISIS were often recruited by a network of militants operating in their home countries with support from radical mosques and their members. These are people who can’t or won’t go to fight in Syria or Iraq themselves, but are willing to encourage and support others who will.
Perhaps of even greater significance, based on the efforts of the U.S. State Department, has been the role of social media in recruiting foreign fighters and winning support abroad, particularly in the West. While overall support for ISIS among Muslims in the West remains very low, the U.S. Government has shown considerable concern over the potential effect of social media in winning greater sympathy and support among western Muslims. In fact the State Department now has a growing social media division formed in 2010 to counter messaging from Al Qaeda, ISIS, and its affiliated groups. The unit engages in online forums in English, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Somali. They post on Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube and Facebook, seeking to question claims made by extremist groups and highlight their brutality.
Recently, for example, supporters of ISIS posted images on social media suggesting that western soldiers raped Arab women. The U.S. State Department responded from their Twitter account pointing out the images were fake and that at least one image was taken from a Hungarian pornography movie. The State Department’s campaign, titled Think Again, Turn Away, also has an active Facebook page- click here, which regularly posts updates countering ISIS propaganda. The Facebook page emphasizes, through its links and images, the suffering of Muslims (in particular) at the hands of ISIS fighters, highlighting thousands of executions and extreme brutality toward women.
Yet even with such efforts, for the moment, ISIS seemingly has them outmatched.
From a recent article in the New York Times (See – Digital War Takes Shape on Websites over ISIS)
“In contrast, Ms. Khatib said that an informant of hers in the ISIS hotbed of Raqqa, Syria — a city hard hit by the latest United States-led airstrikes — reported that Internet cafes there were “populated 24 hours a day” by many scores of young men “posting what the media department of the Islamic State wanted them to post.” She added that “the capacity of these kinds of groups far exceeds the capacity of any government because these groups rely on thousands of members who are mobilized to engage in social media.”